I was born and brought up in South Africa, in a society balkanised into separate racial ghettos. For black people, that meant living double lives. Work and employment brought them into contact with the dominant group and into relationships that were official and formal, filled with posturing, pretence and hostility. After work, they went home to their ghettos to relax, be with family and friends and live fairly free from restraints. Freedom was experienced outside the mainstream, in segregated areas. Though they lived very different lives in ghettos, black children through education were acculturated into Western ways and developed a double consciousness, which made them critical of their own norms and values.
I was brought up in an Indian ghetto, the Asiatic Bazaar in Marabastad in Pretoria and because we spoke English at home, the children in our family were not really socialised into the practices of the Tamil community in which we lived. Our family had come from Natal and were to some extent outsiders in the location. And as a child, I became an observer of customs. I always felt I was standing outside whatever events were taking place. If I participated, it was in a perfunctory way, and what I did not understand, I rejected. I became an independent person, introspective, questioning and unwilling to accept anything purely on the basis of faith. I was not rebellious; I was quietly sceptical.
When we moved to Durban, I was a teenager and being a stranger in the city became even more of an observer. One of my teachers, a devout Catholic, exposed us, the pupils in her class, to Catholic rituals. When I found myself counting Hail Marys on a rosary and marching, I couldn’t understand what I was doing the midst of a Marian parade. Soon after, I rejected religion altogether.
As an adult, I have for years been trying to understand what scientists and physicists tell us about the universe and from what I have read, I have learned that life (animal and plant) is a rare and exceptional occurrence, a miracle that seems to have come about purely by accident. Some forty-six million years ago, conditions were right for the creation of life on earth and as far as we know, there has been no replication elsewhere in the universe.
As human beings, being conscious and with the capacity to explore the universe, we, are faced with the paradox of our existence. We are finite beings in an infinite and expanding universe. We have built up knowledge to try to understand the workings of the universe but we can never know it all and what we think we know is subject to change and cannot be asserted with absolute certainty. Because we live in a state of uncertainty, we have created coping mechanisms to give us stability and meaning to our lives – coping mechanisms such as the community, with its religion, customs and traditions. These are concrete systems that ward off the fear of the vast unknown. And, paradoxically, we search endlessly to define infinity, to give it the beginning, middle and end that defines us, i.e. birth, existence, death.
But the meaning of our lives, as far as we can comprehend it, is summed up in the word ubuntu, which means I am, because we are, or, a person is a person through other people. If one accepts ubuntu then one understands that one has a responsibility to the community because it has given one one’s individuality. One is responsible in the sense that one has to fulfil one’s own potential and make it a contribution to the community. Religion detours us from this by calling for submission to a higher power and making us dependent, not on ourselves, but on an abstraction. Belief in higher powers, such as gods and governments, turn us into dependents, into suppliants, into passive recipients instead of people who take responsibility for ourselves. Abdication of personal responsibility leads to dependency and dependency is weakness. Those who are strong, are assertive. Strength requires assertiveness, the ability to think independently, and to act.
Strength depends on one’s understanding of the human condition. But being strong is not a permanent or consistent condition.